This month in The Rom-Com Project, I’m looking at romantic comedies that fall into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl category. Usually, I save my wrap-ups for the end of the month, but occasionally I have more complex thoughts about individual movies and will want to write about them in individual posts. (500) Days of Summer is one such movie. I saw this movie in the theaters when it first came out in 2007 and loved it. After watching it for the second time, I still loved it, but for a different reason.
The first time I watched (500) Days of Summer, I saw the film as a story about two people who had a good relationship while it lasted but ultimately were not each other’s The One. After watching it again, I saw the film as a story about a misguided hopeless romantic who falls into a self-indulgent funk after a breakup, mopes obnoxiously for a while, but ultimately gets over it and moves on with his life.
One of the strengths of (500) Days of Summer is the way it allows and encourages us to empathize with Tom and laugh at him at the same time. There are moments where I truly felt sorry for him because I remember how I felt when my heart was broken. There are moments where I laughed at him because he was moping and grieving for an inappropriate length of time, and then stopped laughing and cringed because I thought, “I didn’t act like that back in college, did I?” And then blushed because suddenly Tom’s moping seemed all too familiar for comfort.
Ultimately, Tom has to accept that Summer is not The One, she never was The One, and that he needs to move on with his life. It’s an unusually healthy plot for a romantic comedy.
What I object to, however, is the idea that Tom was the only person in the wrong.
I’ve seen some feminist criticism of (500) Days of Summer that has criticized Tom for having unrealistic expectations of Summer while defending her for being upfront with him from the beginning. After all, she told him that she didn’t believe in love and that she didn’t want a relationship, so he has no right to bethat upset when she ends things with him – right?
Well, that criticism didn’t sit right with me the first time I watched the film, and I agree with it even less the second time. I think the assessment of Tom is correct – he put unrealistic expectations onto Summer and wanted her to be someone that she wasn’t. The fact that he couldn’t see beyond that is his own fault. But I also couldn’t help but think, several times, “Wow, Summer’s kind of a jerk.”
Please note my choice of phrase. She’s not a harpy bitch. She’s not the worst human being of all time. She’s not a soul-sucking succubus who crushes men’s hearts for fun and then laughs as she eats them alive. But she’s kind of a jerk.
Seriously, who invites an ex-boyfriend-of-sorts to a party, barely talks to him all evening, and lets him find out she’s engaged by having him glimpse her ring from across a crowded room?
I’ll tell you who: someone who’s kind of a jerk!
Now, as I said before, Tom is unquestionably responsible for his own heartbreak. Summer told him that she didn’t believe in love, didn’t want a boyfriend, and wanted something casual. He agreed to her conditions, but clearly took it for granted that she would eventually change her mind. That’s not fair to her, and he certainly set himself up. But I think Summer equally took for granted that Tom’s feelings wouldn’t change, that he would be able to keep things casual and not develop a stronger attachment to her, because that’s what she wanted him to do.
My favorite sequence of the movie is where Tom goes to Summer’s party and the story is split into two screens showing the difference between Tom’s expectations of the evening and the reality of the evening. The differences between “expectations” and “reality” are subtle at first but become more pronounced over the night. I bet if we saw Summer’s split-screen, we’d see Tom enthusiastically congratulate her on her engagement and promise that they’d always be friends, when the reality is his abrupt departure from her apartment.
Ultimately, I think Summer was dishonest about her feelings – not in a horrible, unforgivable way, or even an intentionally misleading way. But she came across to me as someone who wanted to reap the benefits of a romantic-esque relationship without actually committing to anything until she knew how she really felt about Tom.
And trust me, the last thing I want to do is participate in Nice Guy apologia. But I’ve been a Tom before, getting unrealistically excited and hopeful after meeting someone interesting and setting myself up for a fall, where I’ve been an active participant in breaking my own heart – but at the same time, I’d have a Summer who would kiss me at a party and then say he can’t pursue anything “right now,” while still sending series of flirty text messages and calling me after I wrote a Facebook status about dating. I’m more than willing to accept responsibility for my part in getting crushed, but my Summer is still partially to blame for sending mixed messages.
The bottom line is that leading someone on, even unintentionally, is a not-nice thing to do regardless of sex or gender. And I can’t help but feel that if the sexes/genders were reversed in this film, if a woman named Tina had fallen for a guitarist named Steve in (500) Days of Strummer and Steve acted the way Summer did, some feminist criticism would be more sympathetic to Tina than it is to Tom. (I’m saying “some” because obviously feminism is not a monolith and feminist reactions to this movie are varied.)
In the end, I loved this movie because the two characters who had such unrealistic expectations for each other didn’t end up together. And they didn’t end in bitterness or hate. Nor did they end with the implication that they were each other’s true loves all along, and that they were permanently separated by fate because it’s too late oh noes! No, they said goodbye, on peaceful terms, and moved on with their lives. I wish more movies about relationships ended like that.